Decolonizing New England Indian History

Colin G. Calloway and Neal Salisbury

It is often said we cannot escape the past, and that is particularly true in Indian country. At the same time, as any student of history knows, we cannot escape the present in looking at the past. For the indigenous peoples of New England—the Abenaki, Mohegan, Mohican, Narragansett, Nipmuc, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Pequot, Schaghticoke, Wampanoag and other tribal nations—the colonial period has not yet ended. The contemporary struggles of native peoples to defend their resources, shape their futures, safeguard their health, and provide for their families may seem to render the academic study of history of limited relevance to “real life.” Yet, the manner in which that history is reconstructed and interpreted has very real effects on very real struggles, in a climate and society where Native rights are closely tied to political status and ethnic identity.

History is contested ground. Who tells it, who “owns the past,” can leverage significant power. Colonialism entailed, indeed required, controlling how history is told. Colonial writers depicted Indians not as people who made history, but as people who stood in history’s way. Indians also stood between the colonizer and valuable resources and land. Writing was an instrument of dispossession that also exercised “conceptual violence” on Indian peoples, their world, and their ways of knowing. Indians were dehumanized and demonized as “savages,” while their conquerors were ennobled as “civilized”; natives’ homelands became “frontiers” or “wilderness,” and their history was written according to colonial constructs.1

The legacies of colonial invasion—dispossession, racism, and ethnocide—are inextricably linked to loss of land, loss of political sovereignty, and loss of control over the telling of native histories. Native peoples have their own ways of understanding and recording history, and Indian communities and individuals are repositories of historical knowledge. Until recently, however, Indians were rarely consulted by non-native scholars and what little information they shared was usually accorded second-class status, subordinated to the researchers interpretations and academic purposes. The dominant approach to writing and interpreting New England colonial history has tended to obscure native experiences, native perspectives, and oral histories.

For most Americans, “colonial” conjures up images of Puritan settlers, powdered wigs, and tricorn hats—Plimouth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburg. It suggests a specific period predating the American Revolution. In New England, Indian people step briefly onto this colonial stage: they meet the Pilgrims, die of disease, lose their lands, and go down in defeat in the Pequot War and King Philip’s War. Their part in America’s history is limited to a colonial era that serves as prelude to the history of the United States. But for native people, colonialism lasts longer and reaches well beyond the moment of American independence.

Understanding colonialism in native New England requires looking beyond Indian-European contacts and conflicts. It requires seeing how colonial mechanisms of power and control were established and perpetuated, and how colonial attitudes continue to influence modern ways of thinking about race and gender, family and community, authority and power, culture and identity. It requires that we ask how and why Euro-American ways of recording history and scholarship have dominated the study of American Indian histories. Many native people point out that enduring colonial structures and attitudes curtail, deny, and distort their voices, and still allow non-native academics to monopolize the telling of their histories. They insist on greater intellectual and cultural sovereignty: knowledge from Indian communities should stay in the communities; native people should tell their own stories and write their own histories using native sources of knowledge. Many non-natives have reacted with alarm at these demands and at the support natives have received from some members of the non-Indian public. Some scholars worry that the increasing insistence of native nations on telling their own histories threatens to undermine academic standards as well as Americans’ memory of their nation’s history.2 As a result of this mutual mistrust, native and non-native scholars have been telling histories of New England Indians that for the most part run parallel to one another, with no intersection.

Despite so much writing and talking past one another by scholars, a growing number of them have recognized that intersection is not only possible but desirable if we are to gain a fuller understanding of the region’s history. The intersection, overlapping, and conflict of the scholar’s past and the native present were very much in the minds of the committee that John Tyler, Editor of Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, assembled to plan a conference on Indian history in New England. Marge Bruchac (Abenaki), Jean O’Brien (Ojibwe), the late Russell Peters (Mashpee Wampanoag), Colin Calloway, Barry O’Connell, and Neal Salisbury, each, in her or his own way, understood the complexities of “doing Indian history.” These scholars recognized that a full and accurate portrayal of native peoples and their past requires true collaboration by Indian and non-Indian historians, and that native perspectives are vital to reevaluating, deconstructing, and reinterpreting colonial ideologies, attitudes, and methods of recording history. They were adamant that the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, not known for its inclusion of Indian perspectives on New England’s past, must do more than just invite academic papers.

Instead, the conference tried to do what the best scholarship in recent years has done: combine scholarly research and inquiry with native testimony and insight; strive for dialogue rather than definitive delivery. Titling the conference “Reinterpreting the Indian Experience in Colonial New England,” the organizers understood that the rethinking could and should apply to “colonial” as well as to Indian experiences. They invited native participants to comment upon and to challenge the continuing colonial structures that constrain their lives and limit their opportunities. They selected Old Sturbridge Village, a place located in the center of Nipmuc homelands yet best known for portraying nineteenth-century white Yankee culture, as the appropriate site for this dialogue to take place.

That past and present are one was apparent in the opening session. The Nipmuc speakers who opened the conference had no doubts about who they are or about their history in their central Massachusetts homelands, but at the time of the conference they were awaiting a decision on their political status as a sovereign nation in the eyes of the federal government. President Bill Clinton had awarded the Nipmuc Nation federal recognition as an “eleventh hour” measure before leaving office. George W. Bush put their recognition on hold when he took office. The recognition Clinton had extended was subsequently withdrawn. The Nipmuc experience is all too familiar in New England, where the status and identity of longstanding native communities have often been debated, decided and denied by outsiders. Federal recognition policies, popular attitudes, and decades of Eurocentric scholarship alike have failed to make sense of New England’s Indian country and communities. Four hundred years of contact, conflict, and cautious coexistence have produced complex and mutlilayered webs of identity that defy consistent bureaucratic categorization and popular stereotypes. The images and one-dimensional histories generated during those centuries make it difficult for most Americans to understand the depth and persistence of Native American presence in New England.

In recent decades native and non-native scholars have whittled away at old attitudes and assumptions that denied Indian people a meaningful place in New England’s past. Much work remains to be done to breach the still-formidable defenses against according Indian people a place in New England’s present. Conversations such as those that took place at Sturbridge help to break down such barriers; scholarship such as the selection of papers published here represents the continuing needs and opportunities for deeper and fuller understandings of the shared colonial past that has shaped, and continues to shape, New England’s present.

It proved impossible, in a volume like this, to include the full range of presentations and dialogue that comprised the conference. There were many short presentations, “non-papers,” statements from the floor, and spontaneous remarks that enriched the conference but did not lend themselves to reproduction as part of the published proceedings. One or two short presentations addressing explicitly contemporary issues would not have fit well in a volume dominated by longer historical essays. Even as the editors tried to assemble representative papers from a conference designed to include native voices, they recognized that, in the published volume, some voices would yet again be absent. In the end, it was decided to publish a selection of ten essays from those submitted for consideration. The sample does reflect the conference in that it includes works by younger as well as established scholars, works by natives and non-natives, and collaborative efforts by Indian and non-Indian scholars. It includes essays on new topics, and essays that ask new questions of old topics. Collectively, the essays suggest some of the new directions scholars are pursuing, as well as some ways of thinking about history that are new to academia but very old in native communities. The volume concentrates on southern New England as the area on which the presentations were solidly focused. It does not offer a narrative history of such familiar topics as colonial-Indian encounters, Puritan missions, King Philip’s War, and the French and Indian wars. Instead, the authors peer beneath the surface history of events to understand how non-Indian peoples projected and perpetuated colonialism and how Indian peoples in southern New England experienced and responded to it.

Virginia DeJohn Anderson examines a first meeting between New England Indians and an Old World domesticated animal. The incident was part of a huge encounter that had momentous ecological consequences, but Anderson explores it as a cultural encounter: how did the Indians make sense of the new creature? The English colonists’ own failure to understand the complex world of Indian-animal relationships and the inability of their language to convey Algonkian spiritual concepts make this a challenging task for a historian working with seventeenth-century written records. Anderson resorts to studies of modern Cree to better understand the reciprocal and ritual relations that native hunters maintained with animals that possessed significant spiritual power. The cow that Chickwallop and his people discovered challenged their world view not only because it was a new creature but also because it was, to Englishmen, property.

Joshua Bellin takes a new look at some old sources and asks how we can treat the written texts created by a Puritan missionary. In John Eliot’s tracts, Bellin finds “the unsettling power of encounter. . . . present in a variety of forms.” He points out that Indians and missionaries alike lived in “contexts of translation,” and that any documents created in such contexts bear the marks of both cultures as they adjust to and interpret the other. The very act of translation was an act of colonialism, even of colonial violence. The words expressed by Indian people in John Eliot’s Dialogues, for example, belonged entirely neither to the Indians nor to Eliot. While such texts cannot be accepted at face value as representing the views or voices of native people, translation “enables us to see that the Indian presence is at once more elusive and more decisive than scholars of colonial texts typically allow.”

Ann Mane Plane takes the issue of translation to another level, exploring the place of dreams in Puritan English and Algonkian Indian cultures. Analyzing an English missionary’s written account of an Indian woman’s dream, she attempts to “eavesdrop on an unusual conversation” between them about the meaning of dreams. Though Plane recognizes that she is working with “a highly compromised piece of historical evidence,” her essay nonetheless suggests the potential for the uses of dreams as evidence for understanding cross-cultural encounters and colonization.

Scholars are also paying more attention to the scope of the Indian slave trade throughout colonial North America, locating Indian slaves in French colonial towns, Spanish silver mines, and British sugar islands, and finding that New Englanders bought, sold, and employed Indian slaves. Charles Town, South Carolina, was notorious as a port of exit for Indian slaves captured in the interior and shipped to the Caribbean, but Charles Town also exported Indian slaves to New England, while New England sent Indian captives to the Caribbean.3 Margaret Newell focuses on Indian slavery in New England during the half century following 1670 and reconstructs the experiences and legal position of Indian slaves. New Englanders were prohibited from enslaving Indians unless they were captives taken in war; however, no such restrictions prevented Indians from being sentenced to involuntary servitude for non-payment of debt or other offenses, and the distinction between slavery and involuntary servitude was often slight.

Many, if not most, Indian servants were children. As part of an ongoing scholarly collaboration that has already produced important work, historian Ruth Wallis Herndon and Narragansett medicine woman and tribal historian Ella Wilcox Sekatau discuss the servitude of Indian children in eighteenth-century Rhode Island. Looking at the period 1750–1800, when the system of “pauper apprenticeship!” was at its height, Herndon analyzes town records while Sekatau draws on Narragansett oral traditions to reveal the experiences of young Indians who, from illegitimacy, loss of parents, or poverty, found themselves servants. Racial labeling often proved fluid, and it was not uncommon for Indian slaves and servants to be identified as blacks in the official record.

Understanding Indian responses to colonialism requires us to look beyond epic struggles like King Philip’s War and to avoid placing people in simple “for and against” categories. Natives developed multiple ways of resisting and surviving colonialism, even in such little acts as going to church, learning to read, telling a story, or making a basket. In another collaborative project involving a native and a non-native scholar, Trudie Lamb Richmond and Amy Den Ouden examine forms of resistance at the local level. Richmond reconstructs how native women tested the limits of colonial authority that intruded on their lives and tried to define their roles and identities; Den Ouden relates how the Mohegan community in the eighteenth century resisted the colony of Connecticut and tried to retain some autonomy not by going to war but by going to court. Tammy Schneider, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri and a graduate student at the time of the conference, also considers how a Mohegan struggled with the colonial power structure. She looks at the correspondence of Mohegan Indian preacher Joseph Johnson with Eleazar Wheelock, teacher and founder of Dartmouth College. Johnson used the language of the colonialist, and his writing tended to be conventional in form and confessional in content. But Schneider reads more deeply for insights into the complex relations that existed between Wheelock and his native students, and for evidence of how one person managed to construct an identity that allowed him to survive as an Indian in a colonial English world.

Indians in coastal Massachusetts likewise struggled to remain as Indians, and remain on their homelands, in a colonial world. David Silverman demonstrates how the “multifunctionality” of native churches allowed Wampanoags on Cape Cod and the islands to do just that. Though the church was a colonial imposition, Wampanoags turned it into an Indian institution that, in no small measure, contributed to the survival of the Indian communities. Daniel Mandell focuses on the Mashpee Wampanoags of Cape Cod. He shows how their participation in the American Revolution and their interpretation of revolutionary ideals shaped their ongoing struggle for autonomy vis-a-vis non-Indian outsiders.

Finally, Nan Wolverton explores the marginalized lives of Indian and non-Indian basketmakers and the world they inhabited. In seventeenth-century New Mexico, Pueblo women expressed veiled resistance to Spanish colonial oppression in the pottery they made, manipulating symbols such as cross motifs to convey their own meanings. In a similar vein, Indian women in eighteenth-century New England likewise saw basket-making as a form of cultural resistance, a mark of being Indian, against all the odds, as well as a means of making a bare living. They shared many experiences with non-Indian basketmakers. Like the strands of the baskets these people made, Indian and non-Indian lives were at once interwoven and separate in the New England created out of the centuries-long colonial encounter.

These essays represent but a sampling of the many approaches and topics that are contributing to what might be termed the “decolonization” of New England Indian history. Much more of such scholarship is on the way, both from these authors and others. Although differences in emphasis and interpretation will continue to characterize their works, the authors share a recognition that their critiques of colonialism and their attentiveness to the historical experiences of native peoples are compatible with, indeed strengthened by, the critical observance of academic scholarly conventions. In so doing, they are transforming our sense of the New England past, as lived and as written about, and the ways it continues to shape the present.


1. José Rabasa, Writing Violence on the Northern Frontier: The Historiography of Sixteenth-Century New Mexico and Florida and the Legacy of Conquest (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000).

2. Devon A. Mihesuah, Natives and Academics: Researching and Writing about American Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998).

3. Ron Welburn, “The Other Middle Passage: The Bermuda-Barbados Trade in Native American Slaves,” in his Roanoke and Wampum: Topics in Native American Heritage and Literatures (New York: Peter Lang, 2001), 25–32; Alan Gallay, The Indian Slave Trade; The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670–1717 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 7. For a guide to the sources and literature on Indian slavery, see Russell M. Magnaghi, Indian Slavery, Labor, Evangelization, and Captivity in the Americas: An Annotated Bibliography (Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1998).